In Japan, Fast Driving Is the Latest Attempt to Reduce Highway Deaths

A taxi driving through Tokyo on January 15, 2011. TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images

In the 54 years that Japan has been using highways, it's never seen a speed limit above 62 miles per hour (100 kilometers per hour). On Wednesday, the limit on a section of the Shin-Tomei, the country's oldest expressway, was experimentally raised to 110 kph, or from about 62 to 68 miles per hour. Now they wait to see how many deaths are avoided.

The controversial decision, approved by the National Police Agency last month, only actually applies to 50 kilometers of road. With it comes a substantial ramping up of traffic enforcement initiatives, with 100 new speed signs installed in the area where the trial will be taking place and an emphasis on reducing speeding and tailgating. If all goes well, the limit will be raised to 75 miles per hour. The National Police Agency is hoping this trial will help limit road fatalities.

Oguchi Takashi, a traffic management and control expert at the University of Tokyo, believes that a limit of 75 miles per hour would simply mean that motorists would be driving the same speed, just legally, but only if the police are clearer about how the new initiatives would be enforced.

"Even before changing the limit, it was suggested by data that the 85 percentile speed was already around 120 kph without any higher accident risk tendency in certain sections on expressways," Oguchi told Newsweek via email. Oguchi explained that because the public do not understand how the police will enforce the speed limit, they won't comply.

Like in many countries, Japan's incidents of traffic deaths ballooned over the last half-century alongside its economy. For a while the phenomenon was actually referred to as the Traffic War, as Japan's annual traffic fatalities outnumbered its annual fatalities from the First Sino-Japanese War. The carnage peaked in 1970 at 16,765 deaths, after which the government conducted a wide-spread road-safety reform. Within a decade, the death rate had been reduced by half, and today Japan actually has among the lowest incidents of traffic deaths anywhere in the world. In 2016, the number dropped below 4,000.

The United States, meanwhile, had 40,200 traffic deaths in 2016. Yes, we have lots more people than they do, but this does not change the fact that our fatality rates are exploding. You might think that, not being the sort of country to address other causes of preventable death, we would consider experiments like Japan's as not worth trying.

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But the U.S. does try such measures—despite the fact that for American drivers, all the evidence regarding higher speed limits points in the other direction: more, not less, dangerous. Some research has shown that raised limits mean more deaths, the solution for which is to lower the limit. Still other research indicates that higher limits don't mean fewer accidents, just worse ones.

This probably doesn't mean Japan's flirtation with the 70-mile-per-hour line is going to end in carnage, or even that their approach is wrong; psychological and environmental factors aren't going to be exactly the same from one country to another. Some research shows that fatality rates double only after the limit hits 75. Plus, much of our abysmal road fatality rate has less to do with speed and more to do with texting, drinking and the belief that bucking one's seatbelt is for sissies.

And of course Japan is increasing the limit from just about 62 to 68 miles per hour—meaning that what constitutes a divisive watershed moment in Japan still clocks in tamer than existing highways you could find anywhere in America.